A rough start for Woods, solid finish for Appleby

Friday, January 9th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) _ The first hole in the first PGA Tour event of the year proved to be a problem for Stuart Appleby and Tiger Woods.

The difference is what they did on the rest of the Plantation course at Kapalua in the first round of the year at the Mercedes Championships.

Appleby hit his drive into the brush and never found it, hit his third shot to where most guys hit their drives, and managed to escape with a bogey. He was flawless the rest of the day, making six birdies on the back for a 7-under 66 and a one-stroke lead over Darren Clarke.

``After that bogey glitch on the first, I played solid all day,'' Appleby said Thursday. ``I liked the way I swung, like the way I rolled it.''

Woods was in the right rough and had to play short of the green, and his 15-foot par putt circled almost all the way around the cup before staying out. The rest of the day wasn't much better.

Woods twice hit into the hazard on par 5s, making bogey and double bogey. When his eagle putt curled in the left side of the cup on No. 18 for a 2-under 71, he looked more shocked than anything.

``Nothing went right,'' Woods said. ``I either hit great shots or horrific ones. It was not a relaxing round of golf. The positions I put myself in today were very stressful.

``I was just happy to finish under par.''

Appleby was just happy to be at Kapalua, especially considering he had not been here in four years, a winning drought he blamed on focus and lack of intensity.

He turned it around last year, finishing second two straight weeks before finally winning in Las Vegas. The Aussie continued to play late in the year, at the Presidents Cup and Australian Open, and looked like he was ready to keep right on rolling into the new season.

Ditto for Vijay Singh.

Coming off his best year ever, with four victories and the PGA Tour money title, Singh finished strong and was in a group at 5-under 68 that included Scott Hoch, Justin Leonard and Kirk Triplett.

``I'll sleep good tonight,'' Singh said after birdies on his last two holes.

Only two players _ Jonathan Kaye and Bob Tway _ failed to break par at Kapalua, where the Kona winds made it difficult for anyone who missed a shot.

Woods found that out in a hurry.

The new year brought a familiar sight _ Woods lashing at his drive, then holding his arm out to the right to warn the gallery. His ball was buried so deep in the rough that he had to play short of the green, and his 15-foot par putt did a 320-degree turn around and out of the cup.

It was a sign of things to come.

Woods missed birdie putts of 5 feet on the fourth and ninth holes, but the real damage came on the 532-yard fifth hole after he hit the longest drive of the day on that hole _ 296 yards into a stiff breeze.

The pin was just over a gorge, and Woods switched clubs three times before settling on a 4-iron. The ball shot low and hot, carried the green, caught a downslope and hopped into the thick, knee-high grass framing the hazard.

``How did it get down there?'' he said with an incredulous look on his face.

When he realized it was in the hazard and he could barely see the ball, he snatched it out of the grass and flung it into the canyon behind him.

``Well, done,'' he seethed with heavy sarcasm.

Woods wasted no time hitting his chip _ 40 feet from the hole _ and then three-putted for double bogey after missing a 3-footer.

``I'm glad I ran out of holes,'' Woods said. ``I probably would have messed up the next one.''

Defending champion Ernie Els probably might have wanted to keep going.

He won last year by eight shots with a record 31 under par, but found trouble at the start _ just about everyone did on a hole that yielded only one birdie.

Els hit into the hazard and missed a short putt to take double bogey, then went bunker-to-bunker on the par-3 second hole and had to get up-and-down out of the sand just to make bogey. It never got much better until the end, where birdies on two of his last three holes brought him back to even-par 73. Davis Love III was among five players at 69.

The most promising start belonged to Clarke, who is a changed man _ and he's serious this time.

Clarke, from Northern Ireland, finally bought into a fitness plan and has dropped 30 pounds. As if that wasn't enough, he swore off cigarettes at the start of the year.

He said he had some hand-eye coordination problems briefly, but felt fit walking the steep slopes at Kapalua and is looking forward to a big year.

``I'm not going to say I'm going to keep doing it for the next three days,'' Clarke said of his seven-birdie round. ``But today was a positive start. Hitting the ball as well as I did, giving myself as many chances, that's the whole reason why I'm trying to get in better shape.''